By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
No one was really interested in Sarah Shannon anymore. That much was clear to her. The interest ended in 1997, as far as she could tell, when her band, Velocity Girl, splintered apart. When Shannon decided to resume her career as a full-time musician, it wasn't long before she realized her new solo career would be just that. She wasn't going to get help from anyone to record what would become her recently released self-titled debut. At least no help from anyone with a checkbook and a pen.
Part of the problem: Shannon wasn't a proven songwriter, and she admits this. "In Velocity Girl, I only ever wrote some vocal melodies, here and there, over stuff that the guys had written," Shannon says, on the phone from her Seattle home. "And it wasn't a lot, you know. It was only a few songs on each record probably." Even she had some doubts about her abilities as a songwriter, especially since she was just getting started, figuring it all out: "You start writing stuff, and one day, you'll think it's just the greatest thing since sliced bread. And the next day, you're like, 'What the crap was I thinking? This is awful.'" Not only that, but she only had to turn to her stereo to hear herself sing a good song.
Background: Velocity Girl had a good run for the better part of the 1990s, no denying it. The group recorded four acclaimed albums of star-spangled guitar pop, three for respected Seattle label Sub Pop (1993's Copacetic, 1994's Simpatico and 1996's Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts), before going separate ways. After the muddy buzz of grunge washed away, Velocity Girl was the heart and soul of Sub Pop's second act, the solid foothold the label scrambled for after major labels sent it tumbling, cherry-picking Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and pretty much everyone else from its roster. Sub Pop, in fact, sold more copies of Copacetic than any other release in its history, save for Nirvana's Bleach.
Sure, the group was never really as big as Nirvana, never asked to fill in as groundskeeper for the cultural landscape the way Kurt Cobain uncomfortably was, but that's not really the point. Of course, it isn't. Velocity Girl was big in a small way, never making the leap from the art house into the multiplex, so to speak. While their breakup was unfortunate, it wasn't exactly the end of an era. It was the case of another band--a good one, but still--growing and blowing apart. Happens all the time.
The point--and there is one--is that Shannon's voice may not have been that of a generation, but it was the voice of a successful band in the not-so-distant past, and you'd think that would count for something. Yet, in 1999, when Shannon chose to pick up where she left off and step behind a microphone again, it was as though her résumé had been wiped clean, as if Velocity Girl and all it had achieved didn't matter. Maybe they all had short memories, or maybe they thought she was just the pretty face for her former bandmates' songs. Whatever the case, even Sub Pop, Velocity Girl's former champion, didn't want to help her. No one did. Well, except for one person: Blake Wescott.
More background: A few years ago, Wescott played drums with Seattle's Pedro the Lion, a sort of what-would-Jesus-do answer to Bedhead's rolling rock, until that group became a one-man pursuit under the guidance of songwriter David Bazan. Since then, Wescott has lent his talents as a musician (he can play pretty much anything you put in front of him) and skill as a producer and engineer to recordings by The Posies and singer-songwriters Damien Jurado and Jen Wood, to name but a few. He's one of those guys who lives in studios and liner notes, always out of the spotlight by a few feet.
Not that there's much of a spotlight shining on the people Wescott works with; some of them would be lucky enough to be under the flicker of a cigarette lighter. Which made him the perfect partner for Shannon. Other than a brief stint in 1997 singing with Starry Eyes (basically Velocity Girl minus two members, Brian Nelson and Archie Moore), she had kept a low profile since the band ended, "regrouping," as she puts it.
"I wanted to record some songs, and I was working on the first tunes I'd ever written, really," Shannon says. "Actually, I put out this kind of lame EP the year before." She laughs, recalling the almost invisible Estheraho EP, released on her own Marzipan label in early 1999. "That was really my first foray into songwriting, but I don't think it was very successful. So I wanted to start from scratch, and I had these new songs, and I wanted to record them, and I knew that Ken Stringfellow [of the Posies] had a little setup and had done some producing. So I contacted him, but he was too busy, so he steered me toward Blake, who, at the time, was in a band with him called Saltine. So I hooked up with Blake and we recorded the songs at his studio, and it just sort of snowballed from there. We just started brainstorming on music we'd like to make and music we'd like to put out, and just decided to jump into it."